Packet Captures in the Age of TLS

 Ten to fifteen years ago, a company having FPC (full packet capture) was an indicator of the seriousness of the company’s information security efforts. Having trained analysts that could use those packets to analyze alerts from NSM devices was an even better indicator. 

Today, the network landscape has changed to the point of having little similarity to a decade ago. The workforce was already starting to go mobile before COVID, and the pandemic forced a large swath of workers home. Mobile devices used for work became common and the services in the cloud, prevalent. 

We started seeing diminished value in some of our traditional tools. Endpoint Detection and Response suites gave us better fidelity about what was happening on our endpoints, regardless of whether the device was sitting on the corporate network, at home, or at an airport or coffee shop. AntiVirus became less useful. Yet, it still had value as a layer of defense and was good for detecting common, prevalent threats. The fact that its effectiveness was diminished didn’t mean the tool was no longer useful. 

Packet captures are similar, in that though their effectiveness has been diminished by the use of SSL encrypted traffic, especially ECDH, it still has its place in layered defense. There is still much HTTP traffic on the Internet, plain text protocols are still in use even though safer alternatives have been prevalent for years, and they’re a lot of cases where an attacker will use whatever means to do call-outs back to the attacking machine that uses unencrypted traffic. But there’s another reason full packet capture is useful.

Consider the scenario where a host machine just made a connection to a known malicious website. The connection was made over TLS 1.2. You have packets from the connection, but the data is encrypted. An examination of the packets shows the TCP 3 way handshake, and five additional packets. In the first packet, there is some clear text obviously part of a certificate from the destination host, followed by three very small packets between the two hosts and finally a reset packet.

We can tell from the packet capture what happened, even though the data was encrypted. The client established a session with the site, the TLS handshake took place, and the session was ended. The rest was probably spoofed by a network security monitoring device if the traffic was not simply dropped by a firewall/IPS. What we can know is that there was no data exchanged between the two hosts.

If we have a full packet capture system set up, we can validate no data was exfiltrated, and no malware was downloaded, in seconds. Still very much valuable. And if there is no FPC solution, still worth the cost and effort to implement. (See Akime, formerly Moloch). 

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from JeffSoh on NetSec authored by JeffSoh. Read the original post at: